Mai sniffled. She sat on her bed, the picture book "Make Way for Ducklings" open in her hands. She had yet to read it properly since Naru bought it for her, and unable to concentrate on schoolwork, she had finally dug it out. But her focus only went as far as looking at the illustrations, and the cute pictures of ducklings traversing the now familiar Boston landscape only made her heart hurt even more.
Since returning to her dorm, she had spent much of the day trying (but failing) not to overanalyze Naru's last text.
'Be careful next time'? What did that even mean?!
'Next time' seemed to imply forgiveness— at least, that meant he wasn't cutting her off, right? Right?!
But 'be careful'...that definitely sounded like a warning. Oh god, did he figure out how she felt about him? Did she take it too far? Was he telling her to back off?!
Terrifying. This was terrifying. And she had no idea what to do next.
Groaning, Mai closed the book and set it aside. Even picture books were too challenging for her right now.
What she needed was advice. And she thought of asking Gene at first, but where would she begin? That she had unwittingly witnessed a painful episode from his past? Or that she'd kissed his brother without consent? With her nerves frayed enough as they were, it was more than she could handle at the moment.
Mai grabbed her phone and looked at the time. It was currently Sunday evening. Which meant that in Japan, it would be Monday morning. Maybe it was too early now, but they might be able to get back to her before her first class at least...
She typed an email.
Please help. I screwed up.
(And yes, this is about 'the guy.')
Once sent, she drew the covers over her head and willed herself to sleep. Whatever happens, she would deal with it in the morning.
Gene finally returned that evening, having apparently picked up an extra shift on top of the one he'd covered in the morning.
By then, Oliver had finished tidying the kitchen and spent the afternoon lying on the couch, trying in vain to clear his head and forget what had happened. He winced as he heard the front door open, accompanied by his brother's call of "I'm home~!"
A moment later, Gene appeared in the living room. "Huh, where's Mai?"
"She went home. Obviously."
"Damn, I missed her."
Oliver sighed. "Did you really think she would still be here?"
"I don't know, you two seem to get up to interesting things while I'm not around," Gene said with a cheeky grin. "So, did you have fun?"
Glaring up at the ceiling, Oliver thought back to that morning, when Gene received the call from his manager. While initially peeved that he had to come in on such short notice, a mischievous gleam had then entered his eye. Afterwards, Gene went out the door with a wave and a smirk. "Look after Mai for me~"
Of course, Oliver realized what he was up to, but merely rolled his eyes. As if leaving him and Mai alone for a few hours could change anything.
If only he'd known.
"Hmm?" Gene leaned closer. "Did something happen?"
Oliver considered his options. If he told Gene everything, then he would have to deal with incessant teasing for an undetermined amount of time. Or he could ignore him, and deal with incessant pestering for an undetermined amount of time.
The first option didn't agree with him at all. Not only would it be incredibly annoying, he did not feel inclined to reward Gene for his machinations. The latter option also had its own dangers; once Gene grew tired of pestering, he might turn to Mai for details, and who knew what that could lead to?
And so Oliver settled for a third option: telling only part of the truth.
"Mai had a vision."
Gene froze. "...What?"
"When she woke up, she told me she had dreamed of something from our past."
His brother's eyes widened. Clearly, not what he'd expected to hear. "What...what did she…?"
"Did you ever tell her about 'Miss Honey'?"
"No— oh, shit." Gene turned pale. "She saw that?"
Seeing him look unsteady on his feet, Oliver sat up to make room on the couch. Gene sat down heavily beside him, face in his hands.
Oliver waited for him to process this. Losing Miss Honey had been especially devastating for Gene, and this no doubt unearthed some buried memories.
"It could have been worse," he offered as consolation.
"Yeah," Gene sighed, lowering his hands. "It really could have."
An uneasy silence hung between them, as examples of 'worse' crossed their minds.
Gene smiled weakly. "I guess that was always the risk, huh? Befriending another psychic?"
Oliver glared at him. "I warned you about this at the very beginning."
"So you did." Gene shook his head. "And? How did she react?"
"That's Mai, all right." Gene's smile widened. "...Yeah, I don't think we need to worry too much with her. Besides, if only for now, we're 'family,' right?"
That word again. As expected, Gene had latched onto it. Reflexively, their eyes came to rest on Mai's chair.
"What do you think?" Gene asked.
"About Mai. This doesn't scare you off from her, right?"
"...You ask that now?" Oliver looked at him incredulously. "We have already crossed that line. She is too close for comfort."
Gene rolled his eyes. "Don't be so dramatic, Noll."
"Do you have any idea how much trouble she's caused me? I've had more accidents in the past two months than I have in the past two years. She is a menace."
Gene burst into laughter. "But you've adapted pretty well, all things considered! Remember how you freaked out the first time she came over?"
"And whose fault was that?" Oliver bristled.
"But now she can stay overnight and you don't even blink." Gene smiled at him. "I'm proud of you, Noll. You've come so far."
Oliver fell silent at the unexpected praise, lost for words.
"I think this proves my hypothesis. PK or not, you can form relationships. I mean, this is all new to you, so of course it's stressful at first. But you're adjusting. And I swear, you look more chill around her every time I see you together."
Now he gave Gene a dubious look. While it was true that he was getting used to Mai's presence, incidents like today's proved that dealing with her was still precarious at best.
None the wiser, Gene went on. "I'm really glad you found her. It's a valuable experience, you know?"
"Yeah. This way, you'll have it easier next time."
'Next time.' Oliver stared. The words did not compute at first, until he realized what Gene had said earlier. 'Relationships.' Plural.
The lights flickered briefly.
"...I see," Oliver said quietly, clenching his fists. "Is that how you see her, then? As a stepping stone? She hasn't even left and you're already looking past her."
A guilty look crossed Gene's face. "Well...I mean...there's not much we can do about her leaving…"
"Weren't you the one who said that if someone falls in your lap, you shouldn't let go of them?"
"And I meant that! But…"
"I would have expected you to be begging and pleading for her to stay."
Now Gene put on a bitter smile. "...I like to think that I've grown more realistic about things like that."
"You?" Oliver scoffed.
"Yeah. What's wrong with mentally preparing myself? If you don't like it, why don't you stop leaving everything up to me and go beg and plead yourself?"
"...It wouldn't change anything."
"Right? All you'd do is make her feel guilty for having her own life. We can't do that to her." Gene sighed. "Believe me, I wish she could stay. But I think the best we can hope for is that we'll find someone like her one day. Someone who actually lives in the same country."
"...In that case, I have a counterpoint to your hypothesis." Oliver folded his hands together. "Mai is a special case. She was uniquely suited to sympathizing with us, and the chances that we ever find someone like her are extremely low. Furthermore, just because I've acquired 'experience' doesn't mean I have the interest in pursuing something similar again. Frankly, it's exhausting. Mai is enough. I don't need anyone else."
Gene's mouth hung open. "...So, what are you going to do after she leaves, then?"
"Go on with my life. If you want to bring someone else into our circle, you can try. But don't expect me to treat them the same."
More stunned silence. Then Gene whistled. "Damn. I didn't realize you'd gotten so attached."
Oliver scowled. "That's not it. Unlike you, I don't need people around me to be happy. That's all."
"'I will never love another! No one else could compare!'" Gene swooned dramatically. "Isn't that what you just said?"
"Gene," Oliver growled.
"Honestly Noll, you're only 21. It's a little early to be pining after one girl for the rest of your life."
Mai's chair fell over with a crash.
They both froze.
Oliver slowly turned to look at the space the chair had been inhabiting. Logically, he knew that he was the one who had caused it to topple. But somehow, he couldn't help but see Mai there, interjecting.
Gene got up. He went over to the chair and righted it, then looked down at it, pensive.
"...Don't get me wrong, Noll. Mai is special to me too." He sighed. "She accepted us. She proved that it was possible for us to become close to someone. And I'll never forget that."
He ran his hand over the back of the chair, smiling fondly.
"I'm really, really glad we met her. Thanks to her, I'm finally figuring out exactly what I want in a relationship. But she's not ours to keep."
Gene shrugged. "It's a lesson I had to learn over and over again. But this is your first time, right?"
"What are you talking about? I was with you all those times."
"Yeah, but you always kept your distance. From that couple who wanted to adopt me. From Miss Honey. And that one girl, in high school?"
"Gene—" Oliver growled. He was venturing into dangerous territory.
"And from Elijah." Gene's hands tightened on the chair. "We've both been let down, over and over. But I think this is the first time you might take it harder than I will."
It was becoming hard to breathe. Oliver stood up.
"I'm going to bed."
Gene raised an eyebrow. "Really? It's still early."
Thankfully, Gene didn't say any more, and just nodded.
Oliver shut the bedroom door behind him and lay down in bed, not even bothering to change clothes. He put a hand over his eyes, as the walls and ceiling reverberated with light knocking sounds.
Gene had grown more pragmatic than he'd expected. Which should have been a good thing, but for some reason, the conversation had left him...unsettled.
Was it because Gene had changed without him realizing? Because he couldn't read his twin anymore, and that caught him off guard?
Or was it the sheer hypocrisy of him pushing Oliver to become close to someone, knowing it couldn't last?
Or perhaps, more disturbingly, it was because Gene was right. That of the two of them, Oliver was the one more 'attached.'
Because Oliver could not relegate Mai to merely 'experience.' She had become something more than that. Something not so easily replaceable.
Oliver moved his hand to his cheek, where she had made contact that morning. It had been so fleeting, he could not say whether he hated or enjoyed it. Normally, the thought of a stranger sticking their face into his personal space would revolt him. But with Mai...he didn't know how he felt about it. In the aftermath, he had been less preoccupied over what she had done than what it could mean.
He could not tell if that held any significance. And there was no one he could ask for help in understanding it. Gene could throw around all the insinuations he wanted, but in reality, the only person who could possibly understand how Oliver felt was himself. And yet he didn't. For once, he envied the confidence and ease with which Gene could identify and articulate his own feelings.
Frustratingly, Gene also had a point about his lack of experience. He had nothing to compare this to. The closest thing to 'friendship' that he had was Charlie, but Charlie was long dead. And the closest thing to 'romance' was a series of unwanted advances and...something that never developed beyond being mere acquaintances. And even that was questionable.
If push came to shove, would he call Mai a 'friend'? Yes. 'Family'? Perhaps. But 'love' sounded like an exaggeration. 'Attraction' sounded just as alien. To tell the truth, none of it sounded quite right.
...If he had to assign a word to it, he supposed it would be 'trust.'
For example, if he were to avoid her tomorrow, he could trust that she would worry and come looking for him. And he could trust that she wouldn't easily abandon him, even if he upset her. The only other person he could trust to that extent was Gene.
She trusted him too, despite everything. She'd entrusted him with that key. Not only that, she tried to understand him...and he found himself wanting to understand her.
But beyond that, he didn't know what he wanted from her. He wouldn't mind if she stayed. But he wouldn't beg her to. Like Gene, he'd already accepted that she would leave. And it was too soon to tell how much he would miss her, if at all. But...yes, he could at least acknowledge that parting with her would be more difficult than previous times.
Would she feel the same?
"You might take it harder than I will."
Oliver breathed in sharply.
Suddenly, he saw Gene's pitying smile superimposed on Mai's face. If those two were as alike as he'd thought...
Then if anyone should be relegated to 'experience,' it would be him. Mai would move on, continuing toward her goals and pursuing new relationships. And he would remain stuck, with no control, no direction, no future. Just a strange, sad anecdote from her past.
A dry laugh escaped his lips. If, in the end, he was the only one left feeling like this...then he could think of only one word for that.
Mai awoke to the sound of her ringtone. Groggily, she dug her phone out from among her covers and looked at the screen. It was 6:05 AM.
The next thing she registered was the name of the person calling. Michiru.
Mai sprang up, answering the call. "Michiru!"
"MAI! We saw your email! What happened?!"
"I'm here too!"
"Keiko!" Relief filled her upon hearing their familiar voices. Mai set the phone on speaker and placed it on her bed. She had almost two hours until class; plenty of time to talk.
"Thanks for getting back to me, you two. I promise I'll pay you back for the long distance call…"
"Oh, don't worry about that! What happened?"
"Yeah, tell us!"
"Where should I start…" Should she tell them about the vision? No, that would just open up a whole new can of worms. "I stayed over at the twins' place Saturday night—"
Her friends squealed.
"—And nothing happened," Mai said, rolling her eyes. "But when I woke up in the morning, it was just me and Naru. Gene had to go to work suddenly…"
"'Naru' is the one you have a crush on?"
"Yeah. Anyway...we got to talking. And he said he didn't care to know more about people until 'recently.' So I asked if that meant he wanted to get to know me."
More squealing. Mai blushed.
"He, uh...didn't answer. He just got grumpy and weird and unresponsive."
"Wow. What a tsundere."
"Right?!" Mai exclaimed, glad that she wasn't the only one to see it that way. "And I just got so frustrated with how he was acting, that I...uh...kissed him on the cheek."
Loud squealing. Mai leaned away from her phone.
"Holy crap, Mai! Way to go!"
"I didn't know you had it in you!"
"I'm not asking to be praised!" Mai whined.
"And? How did he react?!"
"...I don't know. I ran away…"
There was a pause on the other end. "Oh, Mai…" Keiko sighed.
"But I texted him that I was sorry soon after, and do you know how he replied? 'Be careful next time'! Like, what does that even mean?!"
"Did you ask him?"
Her friends both sighed.
"But all I can think is that he's saying I'm on real thin ice and need to watch my step, and oh my god, how am I going to face him now?!"
"That's kinda a weird way to put it, though..."
"Yeah, and one vague text isn't much to go on…"
"Try asking in person so you can get a live reaction!"
"I-I don't think I have the nerve…"
"But you had enough nerve to kiss him?!"
"Oh, and weren't you saying you were just going to be his friend?"
"I know! I know, but...a lot's happened since then."
Mai bit her lip. What did change since the last time she'd cast a stick on the ground? What was different?
They had grown closer. Significantly closer. And she'd begun to suspect...to wonder...if he might feel the same way.
"His brother seems to think he likes me."
"That's a good sign!"
"And we've kinda almost flirted. I think."
"Considering how oblivious you are, that's a really great sign!"
"And he asked me to help him write something really personal."
"Aww, he trusts you!"
"And I think he values our relationship. Enough to take the time to clear up a misunderstanding, anyway. But that's not necessarily romantic…"
"It's not, but combined with everything else, it's still a good sign!"
"So I'm not crazy? You think I really might have a chance?"
"Well, I think the key piece of the puzzle here is how he reacted to you kissing him."
"Yeah! If only you hadn't run away…"
"It's probably given him something to think about, at least."
Anxiety gnawed at her again. Naru's reaction? She could hardly imagine. They were right, his text didn't tell her much at all. What was he thinking? How did he interpret what happened?
"Okay, tell me honestly...do you think he knows? That I like him?"
"I mean...let's be real, Mai. He probably does."
"Either that, or he's really confused," Michiru mused. "By running away, you avoided confronting your feelings just the same way he did. You realize that, right?"
"Maybe you two are made for each other. You're both hopeless."
"But you still managed to get this far. At this rate, you might as well just go all the way."
"You'd rather leave things still a trash fire?"
"I don't think you can take this one back, Mai. And you know, maybe it just means that deep down, you really do want to tell him?"
"Yeah. What were you thinking, when you did it?"
Mai groaned again, but sat back, thinking back to when she was in the cafe with Naru. What was her thought process then? Did she sincerely want to express her feelings for him?
...No. Her reason was much pettier than that.
"I wanted him to pay attention to me."
Mai flushed with guilt. She'd told herself she would be a friend to Naru. But at that moment, she hadn't considered his feelings at all. She'd acted selfishly.
"...Maybe I'm not as altruistic as I thought I could be..."
"Don't beat yourself up about it, Mai. You're only human."
"Yeah, everybody feels like that when they're in love!"
"I don't deserve him…"
Mai took a shuddering breath. "The thing I keep wondering is...did that count as assault? Did I assault him?"
"I did. And for the worst reasons too." Mai hugged her knees. "I'm horrible."
"It was just a peck on the cheek, Mai. And you don't know how he felt about it. He might have appreciated you finally making a move!"
"But if he didn't?"
Michiru sighed. "In that case, I guess the best thing you can do is apologize and focus on regaining his trust."
"Yeah…that's probably the best option..."
"I'd say you should make it clear that it won't happen again...but if he likes you back, that could complicate things. He might think you regret what happened."
"But I do regret it! Even if we end up starting something, that's not the way I want to do it!"
"Okay, then tell him that. Maybe not in those exact words, but tell him you'll respect his boundaries."
"R-right…" She sniffled.
"Can I just ask one more thing?" Keiko spoke up. "If it turns out he does like you, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know." Mai shook her head. "That would be up to him, I guess."
"But you're potentially up for anything? Even if it's difficult?"
It was hard to imagine even getting that far now. But Mai sighed. "I guess."
There was another pause. She could just imagine her friends exchanging grins.
"Things really have changed, huh? Last time, you were moaning and groaning about how difficult it would be."
They had a point. And it wasn't like all those issues had gone away; neither had her reservations. But, looking back over the past month or so...
Mai's gaze drifted to the picture book on her nightstand.
...She had a better idea of how it might work. Of how it might be worth it.
"It would be difficult. I understand that even more now. But we've been through some difficult stuff already, and got through it, so…it doesn't seem as impossible, I guess."
"You'll get through this too, Mai. I know you will."
"I hope so." Mai wiped tears from her eyes. "Thanks, you two. This really helped clear my head."
"No problem, Mai!"
"Just let us know if you need to talk again, okay?"
"Good luck. You can do it!"
"We're rooting for you!"
The call ended.
Mai reached for the picture book. She held it in her hands, looking at the cover, before nodding to herself and hugging it tightly to her chest.
"Okay, I can do this." She knew what she had to do now. That was a start.
She picked up her phone and sent Naru a quick text. Hey, can I talk to you tonight? There, now she wouldn't be able to avoid it later.
It was still early in the morning, so she didn't expect a reply right away. Instead of waiting, she began getting ready for class, trying to take her mind off of it.
When her phone buzzed just ten minutes later, she jumped. But the text was from Gene.
Hey, sorry I missed you yesterday. Noll told me about your vision. I'm sorry you had to see that.
Mai stared down at her phone screen. "Crap." Now she felt awful for not telling him about it first.
But also...Naru told him? Did he only mention the vision? Or...anything else?
She texted her reply. I'm sorry too. I didn't mean to see it and I wish I could explain why.
It's fine, he replied. It happens. Maybe we can help you figure that out. Though I think Noll is more of an expert in that field.
It really didn't sound like Naru mentioned anything about the kiss. Otherwise, Gene would be teasing her relentlessly about it now. But what did that mean?
If he wants, she typed hesitantly.
Gene sent a reply. Oh, I'm sure he'd be glad to. ;)
What?! A winky face?!
What do you mean? she typed quickly.
Oops, gotta head to class! Talk to you later!
"GENE!" she screeched. What? What?! Did Naru say something after all? Or was this just his usual teasing?
Resisting the urge to fling her phone across the room, Mai took a deep breath. No. Don't think about it. Just focus on what she needed to do right now.
It was only after her first class, when Mai was heading to breakfast, that she finally received a text from Naru.
Could you just say it now?
Mai stood in the middle of campus, weighing her options. Of course, he might prefer to do this by text, like last time. Should she prioritize his comfort? But her friends had a point, she needed to see him in person to get a proper read on things after all.
After pacing back and forth and deliberating more, Mai sent her reply.
I'd prefer to talk in person. When is a good time for you?
After a few minutes, he replied. Is it important?
Great. She was really getting the sense that he didn't want to talk. It is to me.
More minutes passed. Mai's stomach growled, but she ignored it, walking in circles restlessly.
His reply, when it came, was not what she expected.
I will meet you outside of your residence hall after I've finished work tonight.
That would be past midnight. And not at the library? Not during his break? Was this his way of saying he didn't feel ready to see her yet? Or did he just not want any witnesses? Either would make sense, but she also couldn't help but feel a sense of finality, like this might be the end of their nightly library meetings. Or their relationship period.
Mai shivered, hugging herself for warmth. She looked up at the night sky, moon and stars just visible through a break in the dark clouds. No snow in the forecast tonight, but it was still cold.
She had foregone going to the library at all today. How could she, after receiving that text? Studying in her dorm room sucked, but she could live with it for now, until they cleared things up. She just hoped Naru would actually come as he said.
Thankfully, at half past midnight, she saw him walking down the path toward her residence hall. Mai raised her hand awkwardly. "Hey," she called.
He stopped and leered up at the building behind her.
"Follow me." He turned and walked back the way he came.
Mai hurried after him, then slowed down when she noticed the street lamps flickering as he passed beneath them.
"Being extra careful, huh?" she murmured, keeping a short distance.
He led her off the path, away from even the glow of street lamps, until they stood in a relatively open, deserted area
"Um, it's kinda dark here…" She could barely make out his face like this.
Naru looked up, and just then, the clouds parted, moonlight pouring down upon them.
"Whoa. Did you do that?"
"Don't be stupid," he sighed. "So? What did you need to talk about?"
Mai gulped. Okay. Here goes.
"I just wanted to say…I'm really sorry for...k-kissing you the other day. It was stupid, and I should have known better."
Now she wished it was dark again, her face and ears growing hot.
Naru, for his part, just blinked.
For a long moment, he stared at her, frozen like a statue. She was almost tempted to poke him, in case that would give him a jumpstart. But she didn't want to risk anything, so she just waited patiently.
Finally, his brows furrowed. "I don't understand. Are you saying it was intentional?"
"I..." Wait. He thought it wasn't?
"What exactly did you intend to do?"
She let out a squeak, flying into panic mode. "I-It was spur of the moment! I wasn't thinking!"
"Obviously." He sounded frustrated.
Mai fought back tears, her heart beating wildly.
Should she do it? Should she tell him? He wanted an explanation. And of course he did, she still hadn't managed to explain a thing. Could she even resolve this, without providing one?
She squeezed her eyes shut, mentally tossing a stick again. What did her instincts point to?
...The truth. Tell him the truth.
Mai opened her eyes. "I like you. A lot." She kept her gaze fixed on his shirt collar, avoiding meeting his eyes. "So when you didn't answer my question that morning, and ignored me, I got frustrated. Basically, what I wanted to do was...get your attention." She could barely hear herself over her own heartbeat. "But! I know that was the entirely wrong way to go about it, and that it crossed a line. I'm really, really sorry!"
She looked up nervously.
Naru's eyes were wide.
"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to," she added quickly. "I'd just be really happy if we can still...be friends?"
Naru went into a long silence again. Without his PK visibly affecting the environment, she realized it was still difficult to read him, even though she stood right in front of him.
At last, he pinched the bridge of his nose, letting out a long, exasperated sigh. And when he finally lowered his hand, this time he reached out toward her.
"Huh?" Mai tensed as his hand went to her face. But instead of a gentle touch, his fingers pinched her cheek and tugged.
"Ow ow ow ow! What are you doing?!"
She pulled away, rubbing her cheek.
"Now we're even," he said. Then strode away.
"W...wait. Naru!" She scrambled after him.
"It's late. Go to bed," he said, returning to the path.
"Wha— you're the one who called me out here this late!" she sputtered.
Naru looked back at her. "Is that all you wanted to say to me?"
Mai stopped. "Y...yeah," she nodded.
"And you don't need an answer right away?"
She nodded again. She knew she was being selfish, forcing her feelings on him like this. So the least she could do was not pressure him about it.
"Then goodnight, Mai."
And he left.
Mai stood on the path, watching him go. Slowly, she put her hand on her cheek again. She had to admit, she felt let down. His reaction was so...indifferent. But it wasn't the most romantic of confessions anyway. And she felt relieved too.
He didn't reject her. But he didn't say he returned her feelings either. Maybe that meant he couldn't say for sure yet. In that case, that was an answer in itself.
And for now, she supposed that would be enough.